Crunch time for Donovan and the minimum wage

It is the question of the week: With just three weeks left in the session and a full plate of controversial bills on the calendar, how determined is House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, to force a minimum wage increase?

The Senate Democratic majority signaled again Wednesday that they do not relish an election-year vote on the minimum so soon after passing the nation’s first state law mandating some private businesses offer paid sick days.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said after a caucus that his members “have a lot of questions” about the speaker’s proposal, and even some House Democrats say their caucus also is divided.

While a House vote on raising the $8.25 minimum wage once seemed possible as early as Friday, that now is unlikely with the Senate unable or unwilling to assure passage. Donovan, however, refused to rule it out, and he was expected to talk to Williams on Thursday.

“A lot of the dynamics have changed in the last 24 hours,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk. “There are a whole bunch of people on the other side praying they don’t have to vote on this.”

The session is the last for Donovan, who is passing up re-election to run for the open congressional seat in the 5th District. Connecticut has raised the minimum wage 12 times in his 20 years in the House. He would like to see it go up one last time.

In the last weeks of any legislative session, the fate of bills becomes intertwined. The House begins holding Senate bills hostage, delaying a vote until the Senate agrees to act on House bills. The Senate does the same thing to the House.

The power of the Republican minority also grows at the end of every session, when time is the minority’s ally and the majority’s enemy. The power to talk, to tie up one chamber for an entire day on a single bill, gives the GOP leverage.

How hard is Donovan willing to push? Donovan is not saying. But he said his view is unchanged from the start of the session: It is good public policy and good politics, despite the reluctance of some legislators.

“It’s always been a good bill to run on at election time. That makes it good timing,” Donovan said. “And for the people who would benefit from the minimum wage, it’s good timing for them, too.”

If it passes the House, will the Senate Democrats now opposed stand firm? Williams is diplomatic, referring to his members’ questions.

“The real pressure in many respects is going be on Williams if it passes the House and he is the only one who can stop it from going to the governor,” said Cafero, who was elected in 1992, the same year as Donovan.

Without any understanding with Williams or Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Donovan began the year by proposing to raise the minimum wage by $1.50 over two years — 75 cents in July 2012 and another 75 cents in July 2013.

He compromised last month, when the Labor and Public Employees Committee revised the bill at his direction by reducing the increase to 50 cents in January 2013 and another 50 cents a year later. If it comes to a vote in the House, it is likely to shrink again.

The initial compromise did little to quell grumbling from Democrats, even from some who have never voted against increasing the minimum wage, which is now the fourth highest in the nation.

Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, who grew up in a union household, said he is prepared to vote no.

“I have heartache in not being able to support it,” Maynard said.

He believes businesses need another year of economic recovery before the wage is increased.

“I don’t think this is the ideal time to bring this issue forward while we’re trying to reinforce Connecticut’s reputation as a place where businesses can come to and thrive — or stay and thrive,” Maynard said.

Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, who voted for paid sick days last year after opposing it while a House member, said small businesses in her district have been vocal in their opposition to the wage increase, while labor is urging her support.

“My constituents are so divided,” Bye said.

Bye likes Donovan’s proposal to index future minimum-wage increases to the consumer price index, but like Maynard she questioned the timing of raising the wage now.

Some years, a minimum-wage increase passes with bipartisan support. In other years, when the economy is shaky, it provokes a political slugfest.

“These conditions are ripe for a slugfest,” Cafero said.

As the first Democratic governor in 20 years, there no chance of Malloy vetoing the first minimum wage increase, should one reach his desk. But his refusal to endorse Donovan’s bill is a statement.

Malloy repeatedly has said that he and the Democratic majority significantly helped low-wage workers last year by creating an earned-income tax credit for the working poor and by passing the paid sick days law.

But he and the speaker need each other.

“The governor doesn’t want the minimum wage, while the speaker doesn’t want the governor’s education reforms,” said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield.

He smiled and shrugged, a suggestion that an accommodation would be reached.

Rep. Craig A. Miner, R-Litchfield, said Donovan hardly needed to deliver a final minimum-wage increase to demonstrate his labor credentials.

“I think this speaker has been a valiant supporter of labor issues such as the minimum wage,” Miner said.

But Miner also said he expected the speaker to press ahead.

“I do think there will be a meeting of the minds,” Miner said. “There is a lot of time left and a lot of significant players in this game.”